Capitol commentary: The new battleground – cyberspace

By Fred Benson

Washington is absorbed in chaos. Our national government is performing in fits and starts amid incredulous presidential tweets, disrespectful treatment of heads of allied nations and spiraling combative political partisanship.

As this amalgam of actions thickens, national security challenges grow and outcomes remain uncertain. Russian global interests, Chinese expansion in the Pacific, unsettled wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and North Korean intercontinental missile development and testing remain serious concerns.

Another potentially horrendous situation is that we are now engaged in a full-fledged war in cyberspace. Our enemies are many.

By far the most active are Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and ISIS. Added to these few are the thousands of criminals who spend hours every day probing for cyber defense weaknesses in our government and business sectors. In order to make plausible denials to cyber crime allegations, nation-states often resort to hiring noncitizen hackers from the so-called “dark cyber world.” Not surprisingly, there also is evidence that the United States is engaged in similar activity. Billions of dollars are being spent by many nations on offensive cyber capability.

Richard A. Clarke, author of “Cyber War,” defined the practice as “actions by a nation-state to penetrate another nation’s computers or networks for the purposes of causing damage or disruption.” U.S. national security officials are worried, and with good cause. “We’re at a tipping point,” said National Security Agency and Cyber Command head Admiral Michael S. Rogers. Cyber activities are now number one on the national intelligence community’s list of threats. The Pentagon alone reports more than 10 million attempts at intrusion each day.

Given that it is far less expensive to launch a cyber attack than defeat it, the United States is struggling to develop a defensive posture for this entirely different form of conflict, in which countless potential attackers can inflict extensive damage on this country.

On the secret battlegrounds of this burgeoning cyber war, casualties are mounting. The computer memories of financial institutions (it cost one bank $10 million to repair the damage), telecommunications companies, a motion picture company, retail operations, the Democratic National Committee, the Republican National Committee, prominent Democratic and Republican officials, university and academic research programs, and many other targets have been compromised. But these are just the opening shots of this war.

What about shipping ports, dams, electrical grids, air travel systems and any other organization that relies on a digital operating system? Further, what about the digitally operated weapon systems in our military inventory – could they be compromised, destroyed or redirected?

Cyber attacks on U.S. government organizations are classified for good reason. Information on how these attacks were discovered and defeated would provide attackers a roadmap to upgrade their processes. The unfortunate conclusion to be reached is there is nothing at all that can be done to stop these attacks, and they only will increase far into the future. We are left to trust that our government can stay ahead of those seeking to weaken our country via the internet. Isn’t there something we private citizens can do to help?

Civilian casualties in wartime are often euphemistically labeled “collateral damage.” This cyber war is not without a similar effect on U.S. citizens. Millions of us have had our financial information compromised, forcing us to go to great lengths to recover both cash and creditworthiness. Identities have been stolen, bank accounts emptied, and reputations tarnished. But there are defensive measures we can take not only to mitigate the risk to us as individuals but also to prevent our digital devices from becoming links through which malicious damage can be spread to others. The most clear and helpful advice is on the Department of Homeland Security website. A quick summary:

Keep your system and critical software up to date.

Never click on links in strange emails.

Never open the attachments of strange emails.

Do not give out personal information.

Set secure passwords and don’t share them. Change often.

Verify the authenticity of information requests from companies or individuals by contacting them directly.

Pay close attention to the URLs of websites you visit.

For email, turn off the option to automatically download attachments.

Be suspicious of unknown links or requests sent through email or text message.

Cyber attacks are here to stay. The government has its hands full protecting our critical functions and infrastructure. U.S. citizens also are vulnerable, but we can help limit the damage. Let’s toughen up.

Fred Benson is a resident of Mount Desert and publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter

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